Articles - Track: Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
02/27/2018

Subroadbed

Obviously you need to have something onto which to lay the ties. My experience shows that the sub-roadbed needs to be as smooth as possible. Flextrack is more forgiving of uneven sub-roadbed, because the ties can "float" above the sub-roadbed where it undulates a bit. For hand-laying ties and rail, the roadbed must be smooth.

Cutting Ties

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You can buy them pre-cut from Kappler Mill & Lumber, and Fast Tracks' Mt. Albert for virtually all scales, including S-scale. When I switched to S-scale, I decided to make my own ties. To do this, I buy several sheets of 1/8"-thick basswood (a domestic wood cut in Northern Michigan and Wisconsin) sold by Midwest Products. I have used both the 2"- and the 4"-wide sheets. I have found Midwest Products materials at both Hobby Lobby and Ace Hardware stores locally. You can also get it on the Internet; you just have to account for the extra shipping cost. I prefer basswood over balsa wood, because it seems a bit harder and heavier. If you spike your rail, the choice of using basswood over balsa is a no-brainer.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
I use my tablesaw to rip those sheets into strips. Mainline ties are 9" wide and 7" tall. Since I buy 1/8"-thick sheets, I wind up with 8" tall ties in S-scale. The height is really irrelevant, because the ties are buried in ballast, so no one will know (unless they read this page!). There is a danger with cutting thin strips like this on a regular tablesaw. You cannot just set your tablesaw's fence to a scale 9" (which in S-scale is 9/64") and start cutting. First, you cannot get the entire strip past the blade, and, second, the chance for kick-back is very high (especially when you reach the end of the cut of the sheet). So, you have to cut the strips on the outside of the blade, as is shown in the photo (the "waste" material sits between the blade and the fence). The problem now is that you have to account for the kerf of the blade. So you must calculate and then adjust the fence for each cut. As luck would have it, the blade that I use yields a 7/64" kerf, so 9/64 + 7/64 = 16/64, or 1/4". Of course, this is for S-scale and for my particular blade (Woodworker II thin kerf). You will have to adjust this for your situation. What this means, for me, is that I can move my fence over 1/4" for each strip I need to cut. Very easy. Do I get perfectly even-width ties? No. But, I can live with that. For really bad ones, I simply don't use them; for other slight variations, well, that is just part of the imperfect world that we are modeling, isn't it?
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
If you have previously read this article, you may recall that I left the last two or three inches of the sheet uncut, to protect my fingers. However, in the years since I originally wrote this article, I have advanced in my woodworking skills, and I thought it was a waste not to be able to cut the entire length of the sheet into strips. Also, I could only get 2"-wide sheets in a 15-pack this time around. I was determined to cut up the entire sheet. So, this photo shows how I did my set-up at the tablesaw. As the feather-weight sheet is pushed through the blade, it has a tendency to want to ride up on top of the blade. So, I put a sheet in position, and then clamped two scraps of wood to the fence, just barely clearing the sheet. That way the sheet could be cut without it rising up. Also note that I am using a zero-clearance insert in the tablesaw. Otherwise the strip will get caught in the gap.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
To be able to cut the entire length of the sheet, I used the next sheet as the "push stick" for the previous one. I just let the previous sheet fall off the back of the tablesaw. This set-up worked well. I was able to cut up the entire sheet with almost no waste.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
The 15-pack of 2"x24" sheets yielded the strips shown in the photo.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties

Installing Ties

Once the ties are cut to length, it is hard to tell sometimes which side of the tie is 9 scale inches wide and which one is 8 scale inches. What I do before I cut the ties off of the strip of wood, is I draw a pencil line on one of the 9-inch sides (i.e. the top or bottom of the board). That becomes the bottom of the tie, and it easy to see which side is to have glue applied to it.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
To actually cut the tie to the right length, I use the NWSL Chopper II. It can handle 1/8"-thick wood. It makes a very nice cut, although the blade may flex a bit. On the Chopper, I set the stop at 8-1/2' scale feet (for regular ties; variable lengths for turnouts) and chop away.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
To apply the ties to the layout, I always draw a pencil line against which the ties will be laid. In this photo I am using a piece of Masonite hardboard to draw a curve. The strip makes for a natural easement into and out of the curve, and I can line it up with ties I have already laid. For straight sections I simply use a ruler. I then mark a line with a pencil.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
Another approach I have used is to use a piece of flextrack (shown here is an N-scale piece of Atlas flextrack). I put some weights on it to hold it in place, and then run a pencil along the outside edge of one or both of the ends of the ties. Again, the flextrack is used as a natural easement of the curves.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
Yet another approach I have used is to put a piece of strip styrene between two sets of weights. The weights on the right-hand side hold the styrene strip against already-laid ties. The styrene will then form a natural easement, and you can tweak it until you are happy. Then mark it off with a pencil.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
I glue the ties down to the painted sub-roadbed (ceiling tiles in this case) with Elmers yellow carpenter's glue. I simply spread a thin layer of yellow glue over the area onto which the ties are to be laid and then press the ties into the glue. Be sure not to have too much glue, because the glue will prevent stain from penetrating the ties later on. Also, spread the glue over as large of a section as you can get done in a few minutes, or else the glue may be dry by the time you get to that section. Another approach is to simply apply a thin bead of glue to the bottom of each tie as you are getting ready to lay it using a toothpick. This takes longer, but it allows you stop at any time. Also, and I have no proof of this, but by not having a continuous layer of glue, the sound produced by the wheels riding on the rails may not get transferred between the ties due to the large sheet of glue connecting all of the ties. Just a thought. See the next photo below for that approach.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
In the real world, ties are typically laid on 22-inch centers. Given that a tie is 9 inches wide, that would leave 13 inches of space between each tie. I cut a piece of scale 12-inch wide strip of styrene. I then used that as my spacer block in between ties as I laid them. I wrote the word "TRACK" on the spacer, because I have a similar one for laying turnouts, but the ties under turnouts are closer together (10" spacing there). The other tool I use when laying ties is a plastic square, so that I can eye-ball the tie being laid perpendicular to the pencil line (it can be exact on straight track, but it has to be guessed-at a bit on a curve). Some variation is, of course, prototypically-correct. The older the line is that you are modeling, the more crooked the ties get over time.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties

Final Prep

After all the glue has dried, I use the thin edge of a ruler to determine which ties need to be sanded down. A light sanding is typically necessary to ensure that all the ties are flat and even. I built this contraption using two pieces of left-over MDF boards. Some sandpaper was glued to the bottom of the tool. By leaving a bit of sandpaper sticking out the front and back of the tool it reduces the chances of it catching any ties that stick up too far. Go light at first, or else you can rip some of the ties off. After the initial sanding, if so desired, you could go through all the ties and use a dental pick, an Exacto blade, or an awl and pick at the ties, especially the ends. This will simulate wear. If the line you are modeling is old or not well-maintained, this is especially effective. Maybe even have some ties be so worn out as to appear rotten. When done, you probably want to do another light sanding, to get rid of any fuzz that sticks up.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
After using the vacuum cleaner to clear off the area, I stain the ties with Minwax' "Special Walnut" stain. I prefer to stain them after I have glued the ties, because it makes the job go faster and the stain doesn't get all over my hands. However, because I stain after the gluing, I have to be careful about excess glue. Once the glue hits the wood it seals it from stain, so any exposed wood covered with glue will never be stained.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
Next, if appropriate, I cut the sub-roadbed to match the roadbed profile. I use an X-acto blade and trim at an as low of an angle as possible. It is a bit tricky to avoid the edge of the ties.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
Once done with that step, I cover the exposed areas of the sub-roadbed with latex paint to protect it, making sure not to touch the ties with the paint. The ties are now done.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties
Here is another example of completed ties. Ballasting is next.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties

Aging Ties

Once the ballast is dry, it is time to make those perfect railroad ties look like they've been there a while. The first thing I do is to use the famous India ink and rubbing alcohol mixture to put some dark shadows in the ballast. I simply use a soft brush and cover the entire area. I let it dry for an hour or so.

Next, I use a fairly stiff brush and dry-brush acrylic white paint over the ties. I also dry-brush this same white over the tops of the ballast. This is especially effective on the darker bits of ballast, because it makes them look like rock. If you get too much white paint on the ties, simply use your finger right away and wipe it off. That gives a nice effect also. Don't wait too long because this paint dries very fast.

The photo shows the difference between "aged" (left) and non-aged (right) ties. Also note the subtle difference between the darker pieces of ballast on the left and the ones on the right. Dry-brushing really makes a difference.
Handlaying Series: 1. Ties